Johnson on pace to pass teammate Gordon in record books
NASCAR has done everything it can to try to make the sport as equal as possible between teams -- a place where as large a number as possible of drivers and teams are regularly competing for race wins and championships.
Jimmie Johnson and his #48 Hendrick Motorsports team has taken all those efforts and kicked them to the curb, all in the process of putting a beatdown on the other 42 cars at the time of year when it matters most -- in the Chase -- for the past three years.
They might has well have engraved his name on the grandfather clock prior to Sunday’s race at Martinsville. I predicted a dominating performance and win from Johnson, but he went even beyond my expectations, leading more than 300 laps and dicing his way through the field methodically whenever he got shuffled back by pit strategy. It didn’t help the competition that Johnson was awarded the pole by Mother Nature, giving him the point from Lap 1. But even if he had started 43rd, I have no doubt Johnson would have come to the front. He was the best car on the track by far, and this isn’t the first week that’s happened.
Those engravers might as well get some practice in with Johnson’s name, because the odds are now overwhelmingly likely that Johnson will hoist his third straight championship trophy at year’s end -- possibly even at Phoenix, a week before the Homestead finale, if his amazing Chase run continues at this pace. He’s 149 points ahead of his closest competitor, a gap that’s pretty much insurmountable with four races left.
But he could have an accident or mechanical failure, some will say. OK, let’s roll with that scenario. Let’s say Johnson finishes 35th in the next two races and opens a door for his competitors … do you really trust Jeff Burton or Greg Biffle (the only two drivers with even a remote shot at the title) to perform consistently strong enough to take the points lead. They couldn’t even manage to get top-10 finishes at Martinsville, and that doesn’t win you titles -- especially against the #48 team.
The bottom line is that all the efforts to create parity have been unable to stop the Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick juggernaut, and it’s unlikely that will change in the next few years. Rooting for Johnson has become like rooting for the Yankees in baseball … the sentiment of “They’ve won enough, let some other people have a chance” is what many fans feel. Here’s a positive thought for all these people: Be happy he isn’t about to win his fifth straight title, as the 2004 and 2005 titles were also within his grasp until the very end.
Early this season, Johnson’s detractors saw a glimmer of hope as the team struggled in the first two months of the year and was lagging in the standings. But Johnson's team's secret to success is they figure out the problems and get rid of them, which other teams can’t seem to do with as much consistency.
Nobody, even those who dislike Johnson, can deny the facts. He’s a great driver, especially when it matters most, and his crew chief appears to be the best in the business. That combination, plus great cars from the Hendrick stable, has brought them dividends every other driver in the garage no doubt envies, as they try in vain to catch up to the #48 team’s success.
I remember watching Jeff Gordon win all the time in the late 1990s and early 2000s and wondering when it was going to stop so I could enjoy watching racing again.
But what Johnson’s doing now is equally impressive, perhaps even moreso because of the artificial tightening of the points for the Chase. If this incredible run for Johnson keeps up, we could be seeing his name in the history books higher than Gordon’s in the list of all-time greats.
Someone give Allmendinger a ride already
After driving the #10 Gillette Evernham car to a top-15 Sunday, and a lot of strong runs in the #84 this year, someone needs to give A.J. Allmendinger a ride for next season. The obvious spot for his is in the #41 Ganassi car, which has a sponsor but no driver for 2009, and I honestly don’t know what Ganassi is waiting for. I don’t think he’s going to find anyone that’s better for that ride.
On a related note, slipping under the radar this week was the Cup debut of Scott Speed, who will drive the #84 next season. He finished 30th, which isn’t bad for a first race when it’s at a tough track like Martinsville.